Practicing politics with state drought

Questions about how dry spell was managed

August 30, 1999|By Candus Thomson and Greg Garland | Candus Thomson and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Politicians who thirst for power have found a lot to embrace in this year's drought. They've been posing by depleted reservoirs. They've been pontificating in dry farm fields. They've been staging news conferences in muddy streambeds.

What's not entirely clear: Has the drought been a crisis or inconvenience? And have the politicians been committing statesmanship or just grandstanding?

Many say it's been politics -- as usual.

"Droughts always get political," says John J. Boland, professor of geography and environmental engineering at the Johns Hopkins University. "We have a political drought. That's not an absence of politics, unfortunately."

As with any political intrigue, theories have abounded.

How about: Gov. Parris N. Glendening has been using the drought to boost his national standing as he seeks his next political job?

No? How about the governor has been trying to engineer the sale of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) -- water supplier to Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- to gain $2 billion for state coffers?

"That's a real stretch," says Washington-area columnist and television commentator Blair Lee IV.

Lee has his theory: "Parris has a hero complex. He has to be the savior. The same thing happened with Pfiesteria."

The drought politics started July 12, with Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who has his ambitions to run for governor, urging voluntary conservation. Two days later, the Washington Council of Governments repeated the call.

Glendening -- who has sparred frequently with Duncan -- issued a similar statement July 29 on the banks of Liberty Reservoir. He seized the spotlight Aug. 2 while standing next to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman in a dusty Frederick County farm field to announce federal disaster aid.

Two days later, Glendening delivered his edict outside the State House: mandatory statewide water restrictions.

Not to be outdone, Duncan and Washington suburban politicians stood on the banks of the Potomac River on Aug. 5 to emphasize the need for a regional approach.

Duncan wasn't through. On Aug. 17, he strode across a wooden bridge built for the occasion to hold a streambed news conference, criticizing a regional water pact and Glendening for not acting quickly enough on the drought.

Last week, Glendening and his aides defended his actions in the face of rising criticism from businesses hurt by the restrictions and residents who can't understand why neighboring states have clean cars and green lawns.

The governor also indicated that consideration might be given this week to lifting the statewide water-use restrictions.

"You cannot play politics with a crisis," insisted Glendening spokesman Mike Morrill. "If you do, you will be caught and you will become totally ineffective. People who manufacture crises are destroyed by them."

Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says the governor is doing what he was elected to do.

"He is in charge. The governor is a state's most visible public leader and crisis manager. He's not grabbing power," Sabato says. "You can't fault him for taking this on."

Help from a crisis

But Sabato agrees that tackling a crisis such as a drought can bolster a politician's standing -- especially a politician like Glendening who "has a very fuzzy image" and lacks charisma.

Sabato recalls what a former Oregon governor once told him: "He said, `You know I could never say this when in office, but I was almost secretly delighted when bad things happened sometimes because it allowed me to take center stage and be governor. In good times, I'm ignored.' "

In that sense, taking on the drought was a political plus for Glendening, Sabato says.

"He was decisive. He took action. And eventually he will conquer the drought because the rains will come. Of that you can be certain," Sabato says.

The situation has been somewhat similar to the state's Pfiesteria crisis in 1997, when Glendening aggressively took the stage.

But this year's decisive action also managed to aggravate long-standing political tensions between Glendening and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Schmoke says his first and only contact with the governor about the drought was the night before Glendening declared the emergency. The governor, Schmoke says, did not bother to say anything about his plans -- only that he would issue information the next day.

The mayor also notes that the governor did not appoint George G. Balog -- head of public works for the city, which runs the Baltimore region's water system -- to a regional drought task force.

Schmoke sees that as an intentional slight to the city by Glendening.

"He just had to tweak my nose," Schmoke says, adding: "The politics hasn't put anybody in jeopardy but there has been politics."

Morrill disputes that account. Not in dispute is that no officials from Maryland's water supply systems were appointed to the task force, the Maryland Drought Emergency Coordinating Committee.

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